A Common Sense Approach to Creativity
A few years ago, a friend introduced me to an MFA student who wanted advice. That was a lie, but I didn’t know yet. We agreed to meet. She was a coiffed little thing, with a real New York attitude. The first thing she asked was, “Do you have an agent?”
I said, “No.” And you could see her fake smile glitch. It’s hard to act that nice when you’re judging everyone.
Suddenly, any tips I might give needed a little dash of salt. She said, “Wow. You’ve accomplished a lot without an agent.”
Okay, now she was just condescending.
You can tell with some people, they’re not interested in learning from others. They ask questions they think they already know the answers to. For example, “do you have an agent?” was code for “Having an agent makes you successful.” Which leads me to lesson #1…
Stop worrying about agents.
Focus on your work. Submit to journals. Query magazine editors. Blog. Go out and live an interesting life, and write about it. When you get good enough, and gain a big enough audience, an agent will find you.
Or maybe you’ll still have to send out some letters, but they’ll take less energy, because you’ve established yourself.
Some of my MFA professors used to cajole us to schmooze with international best-selling authors, on the off chance they’d refer us to an agent. They invited their own agents, and agents of their friends, down for vacations where they drank wine with us and work-shopped our writing.
Nothing ever came from these benders. They’d say, “You’re so talented,” and then fly off to the next party.
Consider how much time some of us waste fretting over word choice in pitch letters or cocktail conversations. Trust me, a semi-colon won’t make the difference between acceptance and rejection at our level.
Seriously, read more.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for advice. But you could learn far more about your favorite authors by reading the shit out of them. That refers to both quantity and quality.
Read a dozen posts by them. Analyze their styles, from headline to sentence structure. Imitate what you like, and avoid what you don’t. Don’t just copy the superficial traits of popular writers. Take time to ingest their voices and figure out how to sync with them on a cellular level.
Your style is your own mix of authors, song writers, movie voice overs, and bloggers. Let them all inflect the growth of your voice.
Look everywhere for ideas.
It’s not that you don’t have good ideas. You just can’t spot them yet. Some people get so worked up searching for a brilliant idea, they miss all the great ones scattered throughout their day.
An idea doesn’t usually come up to you at gun point and say, “Hey, I’m a brilliant idea, motherf*cker. Write me!”
Sometimes, I feel that butterfly of inspiration late at night. I write it down. The next day, I realize it was crap.
Fool’s gold. The real ideas sneak in. You start writing one thing, and it turns into something else by the time you’re done.
My best essays never start with “inspiration.” Instead, they begin with an itch. Something I remembered. Something that bothers me.
Writing is scratching a mental itch.
The best ideas should stimulate you, but not in a “this is my masterpiece!” kind of way. They come from stuff you read and disagree with. They come from questions you ask, or ones your friends ask. They come from getting pissed off. They come from gardening, or getting caught in a severe thunderstorm in the middle of your half marathon.
They come from chasing tornadoes (on my bucket list). They come from travel, and not always the fancy kind. I’m talking about getting stuck in an airport overnight. Or your car breaking down.
Know when to take a break.
Newer writers feel a lot of anxiety to produce a big body of work. Been there, it sucks to look at someone who’s been blogging for years. They’ve got a hundred posts floating around.
You’re compelled to catch up with them.
You can’t, though. You’ve got to write and publish at your own pace, and show readers your best work — the stuff you’re most excited about.
Writing doesn’t happen just at the keyboard. It happens in your head, in your commonplace book, your brainstorming pads, and your drafts. Even when you’re doing something you don’t want, you’re writing. Which leads to the next point…
Do things you don’t want to do.
This one’s the hardest, even for me. A few years ago, I went bird-watching with my spouse. I kind of hated it. And yet, the experience made its way into my work in unexpected ways.
Some of the worst days of my life have fueled my best essays. And that’s the irony of writing.
If we always did what we wanted, we’d have shit to write about. The same idea applies to musicians and other artists.
The more things you do that you hate, the better you get at your craft. Because people like to read about conflict and turmoil.
More importantly, they like to read about how you navigated a tough situation, how you did the thing you hated, and wound up better off for it in the end.
Obviously, you have to strike a balance here.
Make good bad decisions.
Here’s what I can’t tell my writing students, but I can tell you. Not sure about drugs? Try some and write about it. Stay out too late and drink too much every now and then. Date a hot mess. Trespass onto private property to see an abandoned asylum. Get arrested a few times.
Spend the last of your savings on a trip to Spain.
Just don’t hold me responsible. You have to tell the difference between a bad decision and a dangerous one.
Don’t do anything dangerous. Once, a student of mine decided to live on the streets for a month and write about it. He almost got stabbed. Not a great plan. Another student wrote about her two years waiting tables at Hooters. Now, there’s a bad idea that won’t necessarily get you killed. Everyone has their own threshold. Find yours, and push the limit.
Don’t quit your job.
A year ago, everyone talked about quitting their jobs to focus on their art. Now, more of us are speaking up about the hidden dangers of that fantasy. It’s not just about a stable income. Your job forces you to interact with people. Work keeps you grounded.
It exposes you to realms of life you might otherwise miss. As a teacher, I meet a hundred interesting new people every year. I deal with the same problems and frustrations everyone does, like toxic colleagues.
Your job gives you ideas. And it makes you relatable. Imagine sitting home all day staring at your keyboard. Been there, and it’s terrible. I like having places to be throughout the day.
This doesn’t mean taking a job just for its own sake. Some of us have to work shit jobs, and others work jobs we like enough.
Most creative people crave time in the studio. We’d spend all day there if we could. That doesn’t mean we should.
Create in sprints, not marathons.
A book isn’t a marathon. It’s a hundred sprints. Only a handful of elite pros can ever block themselves off from the world for 8 hours a day to write. The rest of us don’t have that luxury.
We don’t really need it, either.
Think about how much time you actually need to craft a good blog post, a few hours tops? The same idea applies to a poem or a short story. Academic writing, not so much. But I still tend to break that up into 4-hour blocks. Research articles take a few months to complete — but they unfold over time, not in marathon brain binges.
In my late 20s, I had to carve out entire weekends for my dissertation. But that was torture, and not something I have to do anymore.
Write yourself in the universal.
Don’t just confess the terrible things you did last Saturday. Or the bad shit that happened to you. Write about what you learned from those low moments, and what they reveal about humanity.
Or at least your take on it.
A lot of writers might tell great stories, but they sink into a swamp of irrelevant detail. Why? They’re recalling an experience that was important to them, and they’re trying to make us imagine exactly what happened.
If you’re doing that, just stop. We don’t need to know what time you woke up on the day your mom died. Or what color shirt you were wearing. Get to the point. Your mom died, and you hadn’t spoken to her for five years.
Use selective detail.
On a similar note, try writing in a minimalist style — especially for blogs. MFA programs give some of the worst advice on detail. They parrot this tired maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” Hey, sometimes readers want you to cut to the chase and tell them what’s going on.
The more specific detail you give, the less relatable your material becomes. Instead of telling a story, you’re gripping readers by the head and twisting it around to focus on what you think matters.
The best writing gives up control. It sketches the scene with a view evocative details, and lets readers fill in the rest with their imagination.
Keep your eyes open.
These are some of the ideas I would’ve discussed with that coiffed chick over martinis. But she wasn’t really interested in writing. Just the idea of it, as represented in movies and books about MFA programs. She really enjoyed hanging out with successful writers at bars.
I’m not sure whatever happened to that girl. Maybe she’s doing far better than me. Or maybe not.
One thing’s for sure. I stole her eyeliner look.
Don’t stop any one place for all your advice. Look everywhere. But don’t waste your life seeking pointers. You have to jump in at some point and start making mistakes. The best knowledge I got came from writing hundreds of blog posts, dozens of articles, and several books.
Not sure if publishing at 2 am makes a difference? Try a few times and see what happens. You can always delete the stories, rework, and publish them during daylight.
Not sure how to gain more followers? Come up with a theory, and test it. Write about different topics you find compelling.
Try different kinds of featured images.
Not sure which way to start off your essay? Try several. The worst that can happen is you get rejected, and try again later.
Doing that shows you firsthand what works and what doesn’t. Advice always has one weakness. What works for one person may not work for you in the same way, and vice versa.